Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ruskin--Part IX

Today I will review some highlights from the first part of the very long chapter about the Ducal Palace. "On the 27th of March (1424), the first hammer was lifted up against the old palace of Ziani...That hammer stroke was the first act of the period properly called the 'Renaissance.' It was the knell of the architecture of Venice,--and of Venice herself." To give some background, there has been a Ducal palace on the site since around 813. In 1301, the city having attained its peak of power, genius and energy, this original palace was expanded and remodeled to the extent that nothing of it but a few stones remains today. This is the Gothic palace. In 1424, the ambition, wealth, vanity and technical artistic ability of the city still being strong, but, in Ruskin's opinion, the virtue, wisdom and humanistic spirit having begun to deteriorate from its former exalted state, periodic renovations were undertaken until the structure attained its present state as a mesh of the Gothic and Renaissance styles. As Ruskin considered the Gothic period to be far superior artistically, this building was one of the most suitable in Venice on which he could demonstrate his position.

I thought of New York, and other American cities, and of how much has been destroyed since 1950 or so, and have been replaced by generally inferior architecture and use of space. In New York of course despite all the destruction a lot of the prewar city has still been preserved, sometimes a single building or upper story window out of a block, that has some relation with the poetic, with deep feeling and thought--by deep I mean a quality of intensity more than fineness--with human activity and the formulations of meaningful human language. But the thought was too vague, a specific image, building, feeling was called for, and while I must have had one, I was not able to identify it to my satisfaction.

Greek fortitude. Greek temperance. Plutarch.
"I have said above, that all great European art is rooted in the thirteenth century; and it seems to me that there is a kind of central year about which we may consider the energy of the middle ages to be gathered; a kind of focus of time, which, by what is to my mind a most touching and impressive Divine appointment, has been marked for us by the greatest writer of the middle ages, in the first words he utters; namely, the year 1300, the 'mezzo del cammin' of the life of Dante."

For the time being: Shorter posts. Posts revolving around a very specific and definable subject. No attempts at divining meaning that is not perceived or felt. Personal relation in some way to the subject (I believe that that suits the character of this blog, if it is going to have an attractive one). I appear to be completely burned out on writing. This is a frightening prospect to me, for I cannot think of what else to do. Yes, paying attention to my children and so on is nice, but mentally the results will be the same. Thinking and writing are not terribly distinct functions with me, so that not to be able to do one equals not being able to do the other, and I don't see how one can be happy if one has lost any semblance of mastery over his own thoughts.

Two books I have taken some enjoyment in lately are a book of essays by the Greek poet and 1963 Nobel Prize winner George Seferis and Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar, which is a book about riding trains across Asia and back in 1973. I had never heard of Seferis before. The book was tossed into the charity bin at my grocery store where if you put a dollar in the March of Dimes can or whatever you can take a book (I am a great grocery shopper, a habit I picked up when I lived in Europe, and, as is the custom there, I go to the supermarket pretty much every day, and get provisions for that day only). The Seferis book is oddly comforting, though I suspect I find it so for the wrong reasons. He is an old style European literary man, highly civilized, but his early 20th century Mediterranean world, while not without a very high share of war, misery, poverty, narrow-mindedness, etc, is one that moves at a very slow pace, is steeped in history and centuries old traditions and ways of life, is lived in close communion with the earth and the sea and the seasons even in cities, is heavily populated by real artists and real writers and real scholars, by real I mean their efforts and studies actually achieve visible results. There was a painter named Theophilos he wrote a piece on that I might do a post on here sometime.

The Theroux book appeals to me because it is more or less about trains, literature, drinking, geography, foreign countries, food kiosks, girls one takes an interest in because she is stuck with one in a railroad carriage for many hours or even days. All the things I like. Politics and economics exist of course, but they keep their proper places in the heart, secondary to the really important stuff. Of course his manner is not what my manner would be. He always makes friends with the right people, knows how to maneuver officials to get the bunkmates or the wine he wants, and so on.
If I don't post this now it will be tomorrow before I get back to the computer again, and I don't want to wait until tomorrow.

Friday, August 22, 2008

My Personalized Reading List

I had started to write something else about the Olympics--the blogosphere, of which I make such an indispensible part, was abuzz with various articles describing the rampant sex that starts to break out in the Olympic village towards the end of the games when most people's events are finished, for one thing--but what can one say about it? After all, the original Olympians were naked the whole time? Wish I were there, (or rather had once been there?) The idea of personally indulging in some Olympian love--I think a good German or Canadian girl would have been ideal for me, they seem the most likely to be susceptible to the release of the kind of emotion that I am drawn to at thinking themselves part of a great event--is undoubtedly appealing. That confessed, the idea of being in the midst of a great orgy, particularly one where English and Australian boys are the ones indulging themselves the loudest and most frantically, and without my highly refined romantic sensibility, makes me a bit squeamish. And really, I'm sure whatever sex happens at the Olympics is pretty milquetoast compared to what the serious sex connoisseurs do. My battle-cry has always been "There are some genuinely interesting and beautiful people out there who have milquetoast sex lives," and I still sort of believe it, though I don't think I would be able to say so with composure on television, because when I think about the people I have in mind the idea (that they are either really interesting or beautiful while devoid of compelling sensual qualities, or, that people with compelling sensual qualities could really have milquetoast sex lives) seems preposterous.

So, having gotten that out of the way, I am going to write about a personalized book list I received from (a bookselling service) in a recent e-mail. Unlike the personalized suggestions one gets from or other such sites which obviously correspond to one specific book or other that one has ordered on the site in the past, there was no obvious connection I can think of directly with most of the books on this list.

The first and most curious recommendation was the notorious Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm's 1993 tome Age of Extremes: A History of the World 1914-1991. I have never read any of this author's work, but he is frequently evoked by conservative pop intellectuals/journalists as a much more than run-of-the-mill bogeyman, almost approaching the Noam Chomsky level. The stuffy and rather mean-spirited (in both senses of the word mean, I think) polemicist and editor of the New Criterion magazine, Roger Kimball--who is on the Board of Visitors and Governors of St John's College--what is his connection?--who appears to spend a considerable proportion of his life in varying degrees of apoplexy aroused by the activities and postures of leftists in positions either of or blessed by authority, evokes the specter of Hobsbawm on a regular basis as one of the most noisome human beings on the planet. Among that segment of the intelligentsia for whom hatred of communism is one of the two or three animating characteristics, Hobsbawm is regarded as absolute scum, practically the equivalent of a Ku Klux Klan member. This was so strongly impressed on me in fact that I was a little surprised both to find an as far as I can tell reputable and dignified firm promoting this book as if it were something completely normal and generally inoffensive, and to me, especially. What did they take me for? Hobsbawm's most frequently-quoted--or at least referred to--statement is his affirmation that 20 or 30 million deaths, perhaps even more, would have been tolerable and justifiable if communism had ultimately emerged triumphant as the normal paradigm on which human society was henceforth to be constructed. This is not a nice idea to express but I am pretty sure we are supposed to understand it in the sense of ideological purpose which sees its potential and actual victims, however wrongly, as legitimate enemies. My point is not that this is good, but that there is little reason to believe that as a practical matter the capitalist/corporate interests (whatever one calls the rich people who run the economy of the modern world) would not consider 20 to 30 million lives an acceptable, even an insignificant price for the preservation of their system, though they probably would not be quite so uncouth as to express themselves thus baldly, to discuss numbers, etc, and, being already ascendant and at the forefront of trends in public relations, would likely be more persuasive in painting and writing off their enemies/victims/challengers as losers, for people have no instinctive sympathy with losers. These generally have to find a way to present themselves, or be presented skillfully, forcefully, and attractively, before any effective indignation and opposition begins to percolate among such as have any ability to contend against the dominant power.

Had I been in circumstances at all propitious for the conversion, I have little doubt that I would have been a communist in the 1930s. Probably not to any extreme point, certainly not to that of moving to the Soviet Union, as apparently thousands of Americans did (and then weren't able to get out again, at least not until the end of the Stalin era, with all the atrocities that came with living in that time and place). I might have been talked into going to the Spanish Civil War if one of the cool people, or especially one of the free-loving, brunette-bobbed, not to be resisted commie girls of the era had personally encouraged me to go. These femmes fatales of the left devoured legions of what might be politely called beta male writerly types (especially Jewish ones, whether in New York, Paris, or the capitals of Central Europe) throughout the era. It is easy to detect in the literature of the time that their radical politics, bohemianism, sexual liberality and desirability must have been absolutely devastating to stammering soft intellectuals. There seems to be nothing equivalent now--I mean there is no political movement where good-looking women will feel an urge to sleep with you as a kind of expression of the cause. Of course many of the writer types, those of a sensitive disposition anyway, fell in love with these women, because they were sexy and had paid them some attention, and wished to be married to them and dreamt of having these women cook and iron and support them in their endeavors for literary immortality in the most conventional bourgeois way. This was not in the proper spirit of the movement. Anthony Powell, for example, staunch Tory he, did not abstain (or at least the narrator in his magnum opus who is basically his stand in) from an adventure in communist free love, getting with the actually somewhat gross Gypsy Jones character in the artist's studio after the funeral of its former occupant; as the narrator only owned having gotten with 3 girls, and that counting his wife, over the course of 3,000 pages covering a time span of 50 years, and this being the only one that would have qualified as a "one-night stand", this leaves me to believe that the occasion, or one similar to it, must have ranked among the high points of this author's life. But I am making a joke of all this, and communism, even when advocated by misguided, ineffectual and insignificant Americans, is not really a proper subject for mirth. If I appear to flirt at times with an affinity for this ideology I assure you it is almost certainly out of pure social desperation, not out of a desire to enshroud the nation, or civilization itself, in a dark age; if a socialist movement existed that really could offer me more intellectual camaraderie, more hints of intrigue, less sheer boredom, a sense of a place in the world more befitting my self-perception, I would be receptive to it the same as anyone else would. That is all.
Another book on the list was Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, which I have read, and remember thinking had much that was humorous in it. It is one of the better 18th century plays, though I actually rather like that category of literature more than most people seem to.

The third book was Carlyle's History of Friedrich II of Prussia. Another doozy. Literary-wise, I was raised on the Victorians, and while I can still think of at least ten of them that I still like a lot because they are superior writers, Carlyle isn't one of them, and overall I have not been in close sympathy with the general Victorian mind in some years.

The last book was an Einstein biography. I erased the message without writing down which one, and of course there are about 50 Einstein biographies. I think this one was from the 70s though. It wasn't the most recent one that was a good seller. Many of the Einstein biographies are good sellers, which indicates to me that they don't require a particularly intensive knowledge of physics, but focus on relationships, rivalries, academic politics, quirky personal habits. My father used to know someone who as a kid had lived on the same block as Einstein in Princeton in the late 40s/early 50s (apparently the greatest mind of the 20th century lived out his days in a suburban neighborhood, though whether this was in a tract house or on a more dignified Victorian-type residential street, I don't know). She didn't have too many titillating stories, other than that the great man was said to forget to do banal things like put socks on before going out of the house, or to eat at regular mealtimes. Of course he was quite old by that time.
I rode in an elevator today with John Sununu, the junior senator from New Hampshire, for whom I have long nurtured an intense dislike (I of course did not mention this to him during the ride; I did not smile either, however). My dislike has lately been tempered by the seeming likelihood that he will not win re-election this fall due to the state's rapidly changing political demographics, but still, his father was the governor and later the chief of staff under the first George Bush, and the family apparently remains popular, though certainly no one I know well and whose judgement I would consider reliable likes him. Both father and son are supposed to be brilliant, super-educated, have stratospheric IQs, etc, though the People are not often treated to a display of this intellect commensurate with the reputation (though to be fair, this is the case with almost all politicans nowadays). During the Republican ascendancy of 2002-04 the senator was most proficient in the condescension and disdain aimed towards anyone skeptical of the Presidential agenda that was favored by the Party in that period, but since both of the state's Republican congressmen were voted out in favor of relative nobodies in 2006 I notice he has toned down this attitude considerably. The senator is of average height, and while he gives off an air of affluence and privilege, he does not have a particularly imposing bearing in person given his position in the government. He looks like a typical moderately succesful 40-something lawyer. I suppose he looked more genuinely intelligent close-up than he comes across on television, and he wasn't smirking, which would have been unbearable. He looked to be going to a meeting with some executives at the place where I work, and I suppose he had the capacity to engage meaningfully at some level with them in this meeting, and they, or at least some of them, had the capacity to engage equally meaningfully with him. I am fascinated by capacity of this sort, for I have so little of it, and yet there seems to be no obvious reason why this should be so utterly so.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ruskin--Part VIII

I took a week off because I was busy and also because I am hoping that a longer gestation between posts will make the writing here better than it has been lately. It probably won't, but one must try.

The selections under consideration today are from the chapter titled "The Savageness of Gothic Architecture", savageness here by the way being understood in a mostly positive and superior sense.

Ruskin tended to understand works of art, and intelligence and stupidity in general, as the product of a particular society as a whole. Individuals such as craftmen--carvers, stone cutters, etc, are not regarded as having intelligence or stupidity unique to themselves, but insofar as their society is generally wise or foolish, whether it has made them, in his words, "tools... or men", by men seeming to mean people capable of imagination, and serious consideration of their, and by extension Man's place in the universe. He did not think much of his own society's prospects for producing anything beautiful or otherwise elevated, but this is the case with all men who find life as it is actually lived by real people discomforting and a great comedown from the contemplation of Art.

"It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the nations everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature to themselves." Most of us are of course so far gone from any tangible sensation of what being a fully realized sentient human being in the classic sense is now that I think it has become almost intellectually impossible to imagine a form of life in which one's existential longings might realistically be made manifest. I'm sure I don't know what mine might even be.

"It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure." Ruskin's father was a wealthy wine merchant and the author himself never had to work out of material need. A society in which most men took pleasure in their work and, I would think by extension, in their stations, would I think by necessity have to be rather primitive, which I think is what Ruskin believes, and it certainly seems that he is willing enough to see modern civilization exploded, though he himself actually found a suitable occupation for himself in it as an intellectual and art critic, professions which only spring up in the inferior sophisticated, cultivated types of societies that follow the purer manifestations of civilization and improperly utilize the powers and energies of the human mind.

This topic is of great importance to me, since I don't really work, either in the classical sense of doing something expertly that is the culmination of a long, meticulous process of mental development and acculturation that enhances and dignifies myself and my society, or in the modern sense of economics as a global talent competition for which the winners are rewarded money, status, and power (it is some indication of how cognitively-oriented the new economy is that sex doesn't appear to be the same motivating factor for ambitious young strivers [even younger politicians seem to be exempt from this compulsion, aside perhaps from my contemporary mayor Kilpatrick of Detroit] as it seems to have been in, say, the 1950s. The internet is full of speculation as to why Bill Gates and other technology billionaires don't seem to have a lot of casual sexual affairs which surely would be available to them ). Another concern of mine, which has sort of played itself out in my own life, is that I am descended from groups--Irish and Lithuanian Catholics--that are not traditionally known for excelling in the most esteemed and lucrative professions, i.e. business, medicine, law, science and math, etc. The Irish are traditionally most renowned for excelling at, as far as I can see, literature, music, drinking, the priesthood, and being policemen and firemen. Around 1920 they were regarded as being gifted in sports, particularly football, baseball, boxing, and running, in all of which however they were eclipsed by blacks or hispanics when those sports became integrated. They have some skill at politics, though aside from the usual exceptions that can always be found for anything they seem to be pretty mediocre to inept at governing when compared with English, Germanic or even the better Italian politicans. People of Irish Catholic descent appear to be seriously underrepresented in mathematical and science-based fields, which especially on the internet and in Asia is all a lot of people seem to consider genuine learning nowadays. The male occupations on that side in my own family line include history teacher, chronically unemployed alcoholic and bad check passer (this guy was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania), pro golfer (this was my great-grandfather, back in the 1930s), sweatshop workers (these were the immigrants). Among my uncles there was a radio sportscaster (back in the 50s/60s), a guy who drove a newspaper truck, a guy who owned a garage, numerous people who had union jobs with the Philadelphia transit authority. Oddly there were no priests or nuns, though there were quite a few spinster aunts straight out of Joyce (and about his age) who lived in humble circumstances--tiny apartments or rooms, scanty meals, the same clothes for decades--into their 80s and 90s. By the way if you read Joyce or other Irish writers, the impression one gets of Irish economic activity is that 1) there isn't much of it and 2) no one is really exerting himself too much to get things going. I know the Republic has been doing better lately but my impression was that a lot of that was the result of foreign companies setting up offices which finally provided a lot of jobs, which had chronically been in short supply in that nation. Most people do seem to have abandonded some of their old drinking habits though (i.e. in place of working) which is impressive to me. I did not think a problem that entrenched in the culture could be changed that quickly.

As to the Lithuanians I of course know much less about them. Their most prominent talent on the global level, rather surprisingly, seems to be in basketball, where they have won several bronze medals at the Olympics, an impressive feat for a nation with 3 million people. They are a tall people, with proportionally a lot of 7-footers, and they have also proven to be faster and less clumsy on the court than they look. Johnny Unitas, the great quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, was a Lithuanian-American, and was also considered somewhat unathletic because his gait looked funny. I was under the impression that Chuck Bednarik, the greatest Philadelphia Eagle of all time who once nearly killed Frank Gifford with a hit, was Lithuanian as well, but he may have been Polish. Lithuanian 15-year olds have the lowest obesity rate in the world, at 0.2% (When I was 15 I was 6'3" and weighed 145 pounds, so I appear to have inherited this body type. Of course I am much heavier now). They are also right up there with Finland depending on what year the statistics are from for having the highest suicide rate, and the Lithuanians I have known in America are a pretty dour lot, so I'm guessing there is a natural bent towards what American norms would define as depression. There seem to be no famous Lithuanians in the pan-European sense in any intellectual field, though I am sure they have their poets (every nation has its poets). The modern nation is somewhat famed for its amber jewelry, amber being one of the few things found in great abundance there, and my impression is that there is an active mafia-like component to the society, which latter surprises me given the comatose temperaments of nearly all of my Lithuanian-descended relatives. My immigrant forebear was a tailor, which is a noble profession, and one I can see myself having been competent at if I had been brought up to it. The American descendants have been advertising men, other variety of travelling salesmen, office clerks. The older members of this line were quite good at tinkering with tools and mechanical apparatuses, which my Irish relatives showed no proclivity for whatsoever. I still don't see what direction to follow. It is of little concern to me personally at this point, but there are the children to pressure. And one must pressure them a little or they will have scant hope of making anything or themselves, right?

There is a long passage about the lower classes of men knowing and accepting their places and performing the duties these entail that is fairly elegantly laid out, but is not insisted upon with such uncontestable superiority of language, argument, tone as to be convincing to those who most need the lesson in Ruskin's eyes:

" obey another man, to labor for him, yield reverence to him or to his place, is not slavery...Which had, in reality, most of the serf nature in him--the Irish peasant who was lying in wait yesterday for his landlord, with his musket muzzle thrust through the ragged hedge; or that old mountain servant who, 200 years ago, at Inverkeithing, gave up his own life and the lives of his seven sons for his chief?--as each fell, calling forth his brother to the death, 'Another for Hector!'...therefore, in all ages and all countries, reverence has been paid and sacrifice made by men to each other, not only without complaint, but rejoicingly; and famine, and peril, and sword, and all evil, and all shame, have been borne willingly in the causes of masters and kings; for all these gifts of the heart ennobled the men who gave not less than the men who received them..." Wow. I can see this though, so long as the men are able to retain some sense, or some illusion, that the chief really does partake of a greatness that they do not, and 2) that the chief, this great being, nonetheless knows them and loves them, really loves them. Many people seem to have felt this even going into World War I. Books and movies from the countries of the former Hapsburg empire dealing with this period almost always include at least one character, if they aren't primarily about such a character, who just loves the emperor and the royal family, is motivated by his affection for them, and is only disillusioned at the very last minute, when it is already too late. And it is true that these characters attain a kind of nobility in their error that is hardly to be attained by our modern ironists. Whenever one of these mass shootings occurs, especially at a college, with little apparent resistance on the part of the men present, there is a great deal of commentary from some circles on the cowardice and general lack of manly spirit in young men today. A part of this derives from the circumstance that a lot of middle-class young men are not prepared to act themselves in a crisis, and this is a catastrophe, but I think a component of this problem is that there is more of a disconnect in our society than in traditional ones between the men who would be natural leaders, or chiefs, and the men who need to be led, have their confidence shored up, etc. The leaders don't really want to be bothered with the care of lesser men anymore either, and the lesser men naturally balk at the idea--as one must in our society to a certain extent, even if the posture is illusory--that they are inadequate and need considerable guidance not to disgrace themselves, and as a consequence the social fabric and the culture start to fray. Still, there seem to be far fewer specimens of the classic leader type, at least who would be capable of leading people of high intelligence, than there ought to be in a population the size of our current one; or perhaps I just haven't met them.

"All professions should be liberal, and there should be less pride felt in peculiarity of employment, and more in excellence of achievement." Next idea.

" good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art...I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo (picture above); the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture, and leave it unfinished."

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Unlike people who have attained lives of more or less pure, and mostly clear-minded, thought, I still like the Olympics--or at least the idea of them--so I was going to try to put in a good word for them. However I came to the conclusion that putting in good words for things is perhaps not always what is called for. My main reason for liking the Olympics nowadays, apart from the various traditions and events of it that evoke appealing historical associations, is that there are a lot of healthy, attractive young women in and around it. It attracts them. People who live and work always among such beings cannot comprehend how much of the world, how much of life, does not attract them, and is devoid of their presence. The effect of this, especially in the modern physical environment, on how one views the world as far as its possessing meaning or beauty must be far stronger than is widely acknowledged.

Ethel Catherwood, "The Saskatoon Lily". Gold medal, high jump 1928 (Amsterdam). Remains to this day the only Canadian woman to win a gold medal in track and field (although it was later revealed that she was actually born in North Dakota). Was voted "prettiest athlete" of the games by one of the New York papers (this award has unfortunately been discontinued). She apparently used to sit on the infield grass in an oversized sweater when she wasn't jumping and pout dreamily with an expression of intense boredom on her face.

Swimmers, both male and female, having the best, and, formerly anyway, the most visible bodies, have tended to be considered in general the sexiest competitors. Good-looking champion swimmers, as opposed to say, good-looking champion 1500 meter runners, seem to be especially outgoing and undepressed, which makes it hard for me to relate to them. That's why I didn't put up any pictures of swimmers.

The Olympics also encourage in me the idea, which I have recently been toying with, that I ought to move to California, since so many beautiful athletes, as well as beautiful singers, beautiful chefs and winemakers, beautiful scientists, even beautiful schoolteachers and bookshop employees, are from there, along with their beautiful parents, and brothers and sisters and girlfriends. Tom Brady is from California. If Tom Brady had grown up in Massachusetts, or, God forbid, Maine or New Hampshire or Vermont, he almost certainly would not have been Tom Brady. He might not even have been Doug Flutie. Perhaps he would be a lawyer, but that is not quite the same thing as being Tom Brady. California seems to be a place where if you are a winner, your winningness is magnified to an even more glorious level than ordinary, though if you are a loser, your aura of failure likewise stands out all the more starkly. This might not be the best place for me personally, but I worry that my children, or at least one of them even, might have it in them to be winners, and winners should be where any potential greatness a person possesses has some hope of being nurtured and realized, which it doesn't appear can be accomplished around here. Of course there is still a little time to get to such places during the crucial 18-25 year range, but eighteen years of life in our village and of me as a primary mentor will probably leave them little room for error if they even try to make their way in the big time.

Lyudmila Tourischeva--Even when I was six, and watching the Montreal Olympics on television, I wondered why the American public had such terrible taste in Eastern bloc gymnasts. Olga Korbut? Nadia Commaneci? Well, if you don't have anything nice to say...I was not, to be precise, smitten with Tourischeva (may I call her Lyudmila?) at the time. I was properly terrified of anything having to do with the Soviet Union, due mostly to my encyclopedias which credited them with statistical domination over the United States in just about every category--besides the basics of raw area and population, there was the size of their army, manufacturing output, cabbage harvesting, tungsten mining, and Olympic medals to be dejected about (the Ci-Cz volume was the most reassuring in the whole set because the U.S. was actually ranked number 1 in both corn and cotton, which was a source of great satisfaction to me). Tourischeva (who in 1976, it should be pointed out, was 24 years old--her big Olympics was actually in '72) did not smile or make love to the TV cameras, and was usually described in grudging terms as highly disciplined and competent. She did not send the least signal of friendliness or accomodation to Western sensibilities, and seemed to be perfectly content to be a Communist despite being an apparently intelligent person. I assume this last is why she was not more widely admired by American sports fans. She won 4 gold medals, she was pretty good-looking in my opinion, she wasn't a child, and she emanated an aura of mental/psychological seriousness that is rare in top athletes. Needless to say, she is my all-time favorite gymnast.

I was always impressed by the British tradition that has been able to produce numerous world-class track and field athletes who also have above-average to good humanistic educations. You can go back to the Chariots of Fire guys in the 20s, to Bannister and the other outstanding Oxbridge distance runners of the 50s, Coe and Ovett in the 80s. There are numerous others I haven't mentioned. The last great athlete to emerge from this general line was the triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, who won the gold medal in 2000 and still holds the world record. He had studied physics at Durham University and his father was a vicar of the Church of England, an unusual background for an athletic champion, at least in this country. Among the other people I have mentioned, Harold Abrahams became a lawyer, Roger Bannister a doctor, Coe had studied economics and became a member of parliament. Though many American athletes have impressive academic credentials and go on to become things like Orthopaedic surgeons, they seem to have more of the super high energy, pure achievement-oriented approach to their learning than an intellectual, tradition and language-based one that appeals to me. I know these are great people who get things done and make our country what it is (better, better, better), but I find them rather boring.

Here is a brief film about Ethel Catherwood. There is a very brief clip of her smiling, or shaking her head, where you can really see what a babe she was.

If you have a glancing interest in or fascination with the bleak world of the 1960s-70s Soviet Union you might want to peak at this Russian documentary about Lyudmila Tourischeva.

One of the greatest races of all-time, at least that was won by an American. 1964 10,000 meters.

Since I can't get any sitecounter/monitor devices to work I can only count the visitors to my personal info page to get any idea if anyone has been around. 4 people visited the profile page this weekend, which is a big weekend for this site. I have no doubt that this readership constitutes a very desirable demographic too. Cosmopolitan. Attractive. Tech-savvy. Well above average but not socially stifling median IQ. Important.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Stones of Venice--Part VII

Still discussing St Mark's Basilica: "From the vine-leaves of that archivolt, though there is no direct imitation of nature in them, but, on the contrary, a studious subjection to architectural purpose more particularly to be noticed hereafter, we may yet receive the same kind of pleasure which we have in seeing true vine-leaves and wreathed branches traced upon golden light; its stars upon their azure ground ought to make us remember, as its builder remembered, the stars that ascend and fall in the great arch of the sky; and I believe that stars, and boughs, and leaves, and bright colours are everlastingly lovely, and to be by all men beloved...I believe the man who designed and the man who delighted in that archivolt to have been wise, happy, and holy."

Whether this last is literally true as a general circumstance is not important. To see or to conceive of any aspect of human experience of life as possessing beauty, and by extension meaning, and to convey that conception to others through the peculiarly human arts--language, symbols, architecture, music, illustration, etc--is to have fulfilled the function of being human to the highest degree--and it is only in this that true wisdom, happiness and holiness lies, even if the wise man considers himself to be extremely wretched and stupid on account of more trivial matters.

Another central and intriguing idea of the book, which I have never seen dwelt on much elsewhere: "We attach, in modern days, a kind of sacredness to the pointed arch and the groined roof, because, while we look habitually out of square windows and live under flat ceilings, we meet with the more beautiful forms in the ruins of our abbeys. But when those abbeys were built, the pointed arch was used for every shop door, as well as for that of the cloister, and the feudal baron and freebooter feasted, as the monk sang, under vaulted roofs; not because the vaulting was thought especially appropriate to either the revel or psalm, but because it was then the form in which a strong roof was easiest built." Assuming this is true, and it does smack heavily of conjecture, it suggests many other questions, the most obvious of course being the eternal question of whether technology as we understand it, and certainly as we apply it, is crippling our ability to develop our humanity to this degree to which Ruskin refers. This question is almost always dealt with with us from the general material point of view, which no one in modern Western Civilization can really see around enough to divorce from anything else. Namely, we don't want to give up our comforts, our health system (which occupies the energies of what, 20% of the population now, and growing?) our ease, and even if we sense something of the sort to be the case in a vague way it is difficult to advance the argument publicly that these might be in any general way antithetic to realizing a more exalted state of humanity. That sort of intimacy with the sense of man's proper place in the universe (probably rather grim materially) and leading one's life somewhat in harmony with that which Ruskin appears to be championing, if it ever existed was based, I would imagine, on a fairly compact and readily interconnected unity of knowledge within both individuals and communities--the better one's mind, the further one could range, but he could not become untethered from the core unity from which all his understanding, and that of his fellows, emanated. This is something of the liberal arts ideal of course; it is not against the expansion of knowledge, but it emphasizes the importance of the unities being in place on which to graft that knowledge.

Fig 1: Fra Angelico--Adoration of St Dominic I guess we lost the picture."...because the Gothic and Byzantine styles are fit for churches, they are not therefore less fit for dwellings. They are in the highest sense fit and good for both, nor were they ever brought to perfection except where they were used for both."

"I cannot answer for the experience of others, but I never yet met with a Christian whose heart was thoroughly set upon the world to come, and, so far as human judgement could pronounce, perfect and right before God, who cared about art at all." This is an almost intuitive idea once you have some basic grasp of Christian theology, but the reality of maintaining such an attitude appears to be terrifying to more sophisticated people even if they are sympathetic to or even enthralled by some aspects of its possibilities (in Catholicism this terror apparently emanates from the very top). On a side note I have been finding many of the beautiful pictures for this series on websites and blogs dedicated pretty much exclusively to Catholic news and discussions of the myriad doctrines and services and robes and so forth of the Faith. I don't know who these people are, or where they get the time for their discourses, but they are certainly hardcore. I, by comparison, am not hardcore. I am self-indulgent. Which brings us nicely to...

Figure 2--The Baptistery, Parma I was never in Parma. It's looking pretty nice to me right now. A place like that, which is a city of considerable historical significance, but not particularly over-visited, I would not feel I was overstepping decency by poking around in a bit.

"Thus most Protestants, entering for the first time a Paradise of Angelico, would be irrevocably offended by finding that the first person the painter wished them to speak to was St. Dominic; and would retire from such a heaven as speedily as possible..." I evidently thought this was hilarious at the time.

Fig 3. The Dome of the Cathedral at Pisa I was never at Pisa either. It sounds like the sort of place I would have enjoyed; old, cheap, and home to a university (hence lots of bourgeois-intelligent people idling around in taverns and cinemas and that sort of thing). Obviously it is a mecca for kitsch tourism, but I really only mind that because I usually feel like I am near the top of everybody's list of candidates for who should be persuaded to stay home in the future travel utopia. I understand also that most visitors only stay in town for four hours or so and move on.
A long passage but one I want to take up a little: "For as religious faith renders emotion facile, so also it generally renders expression simple...a truly religious painter will very often be ruder, quainter, simpler, and more faulty in his manner of working, than a great irreligious one...It is impossible to calculate the enormous loss of power in modern days, owing to the imperative requirement that art shall be methodical and learned: for as long as the constitution of this world remains unaltered, there will be more intellect in it than there can be education...And all unpolished power is in the present state of society nine cases out of ten, people mistake the polish for the power. Until a man has passed through a course of academy studentship, and can draw in an improved manner with French chalk, and knows foreshortening, and perspective, and something of anatomy, we do not think he can possibly be an artist; what is worse, we are very apt to think that we can make him an artist by teaching him anatomy, and how to draw with French chalk; whereas the real gift in him is utterly independent of all such accomplishments..." Obviously I am sympathetic to this opinion up to a point, which anyway is hardly as outrageous nowadays as it might have been in 1850. The problem he is hinting at is akin to the problem with creative writing schools, and why they don't really work. Generally speaking, flourishing arts depend, whether formally or informally, on the combination of, in addition to talent, a certain critical, organic level of knowledge, support, and the capacity to nurture, teach and incorporate rising proteges. Writing schools have always struck me as an artificial attempt to mimic the urban cafe or salon literary scenes of Europe, much as academic art settings were similarly artificial attempts at reproducing the conditions that spawned the great epochs of art history. They don't work because first of all, the people running and teaching in the schools usually are not good enough, or do not have enough real status within the profession, and by extension the personal security, to exude the authority of a true Master Artist, or at least of someone who really knows of what that consists. The teacher is as confused about how to make his work a vital factor in the life of his community, even the tiniest part of it, as his students are. Secondly the institutional setting seems to have the effect of grounding people and forcing them into pragmatic assessments of their likely place and function in the world, which has a fairly deadly effect on art. You just can't do that. I know I bring up Ezra Pound a lot, and I know that he was a loathsome person and probably legitimately insane but he was absolutely convinced that literature was the most significant thing in the world, and his energetic and unrelenting devotion to this belief sustained and supported a real significant scene of writers that outwardly at the time had no bearing on the direction of the culture at all. Something of the same no doubt could be said of jazz musicians, neo-realist filmmakers and so on. (Of course there is a grounding of basic abilities in various arts that must be attained; but these abilities are more easily and naturally attained in environments where the arts are already thriving than in an academic setting where the subject matter requires the student to unlearn most of the habits and bad opinions of his previous life).

Fig. 4--This was supposed to be the Baptistry in Florence. I am sure most people know what this looks like already though.

Another long note, but I found it to be interesting: "All the efforts of Byzantine art to represent violent action are inadequate, most of them ludicrously so, even when the sculptural art is in other respects far advanced. The early Gothic sculptors, on the other hand, fail in all points of refinement, but hardly ever in expression of action. This distinction is of course one of the necessary consequences of the difference in all respects between the repose of the Eastern, and activity of the Western, mind..."

I know nobody reads these 12-part reviews of books. I need the practice of trying to decipher ideas and also to state my own as closely as possible. Also I like looking for and putting up the pretty pictures.

"...the man must be little capable of receiving a religious impression of any kind, who, to this day, does not acknowledge some feeling of awe, as he looks up to the pale countenances and ghastly forms which haunt the dark roofs of the Baptisteries of Parma and Florence..."

Fig 5. The Main Entrance of St Mark's Basilica I am pretty sure this entrance is referenced in one of the last 2 quotes.

"A large atrium or portico is attached to two sides of the church, a space which was especially reserved for unbaptised persons and new converts. It was thought right that, before their baptism, these persons should be led to contemplate the great facts of the Old Testament history; the history of the Fall of Man, and of the lives of Patriarchs up to the period of the Covenant by Moses..."

There is some writing embedded in the mosaic over the main entrance (according to Ruskin): "I AM THE DOOR: BY ME IF ANY MAN ENTER IN, HE SHALL BE SAVED."; "I AM THE GATE OF LIFE; LET THOSE WHO ARE MINE ENTER BY ME."; and "WHO HE WAS, AND FROM WHOM HE CAME, AND AT WHAT PRICE HE REDEEMED THEE, AND WHY HE MADE THEE, AND GAVE THEE ALL THINGS, DO THOU CONSIDER." Of the symbolism of this, he says: "...every one who at any time entered was supposed to look back and to read this writing; their daily entrance into the church was thus made a daily memorial of their first entrance into the spiritual Church..." This sounds like the sort of basic thing that everybody knows already, and is conscious that they are supposed to be thinking of when they enter a church with writing over the door. You will have to excuse my foolishness in copying this. I am an eternal novitiate in all matters corresponding to symbolism and the Spirit.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Here's A Song For You Too

It isn't that I have run out of wordier ideas, don't worry. I just haven't felt like sitting down and banging out a 1,500 word essay for a few days. I will soon enough.

This does take me back to junior high school, not that there is any particularly compelling reason to want to go there in itself. However, it was the early days of MTV, when innocence and hope and naive bravado, if they did not wholly set the tone for that network, at least seeped through the cracks from time to time. The narrative of this video, played out to the end, is most reassuring, an assurance that today's imagists seem to have lost the sense of how to pull off. When I see this I really believe that the unfortunate geeky guy 1) has some kind of secret competence, 2) deserves to get a cute girl in the end, and 3) the girl will actually like him, and is actually a sweetheart herself. Nowadays in movies and pop culture I find that the geeks come off as wholly inept and unlikeable, that they don't deserve love, that the girls are not sweet and that their supposed incredible looks are the result of industrial production. It's all a mess.

And boy, did I tell you I like the girl who comes in at the end? Talk about 80s cutie pie extraordinare. I would go back if it was going to be like that. I hope this role was not the high point of her career before the camera. She deserved more.

Summer Vacation Pictures We didn't really go anywhere. However there are a lot of noteworthy places within 90-120 minutes of home, so we saw some of those. We went to the Brattleboro house for a couple of days... We climbed mountains in 3 different states--Haystack in Vermont, Major and Blue Job in New Hampshire and Agamenticus in Maine. This pastime is the inspiration of dear Sabrina, who is a great lover of fresh air, plants, nature and all that sort of thing. I was angling to try to squeeze in another day in New York City somewhere, but I was craftily outmaneuvered... We went to Storyland (the scene below is from the 3 bears' cottage). Storyland is a kiddie amusement park in the White Mountains that dates back to the 50s. It is not the sort of thing one can imagine Samuel Beckett or Jorge Luis Borges going in for, as far as visiting unironically anyway, but I kind of like it. It is not very raucous, and anybody who is naturally cool, whether they are over or under the age of 8, finds it lame-o. Mostly there are just recreations of the most famous fairy tales, along with a few rides. Although it is relatively expensive to get in, I think it is fairly priced compared to other parks of this type, and they don't try to gouge you too aggressively once you get inside. You're allowed to bring your own food in, if you want. Also they sell a lot of very cheap (as in under $5) souvenirs that are still nice to have if you're a little kid. I'm talking about cereal bowls, pencil cases, place mats, that sort of thing... More mountain scenery. We went to the seaside too one day but none of those pictures was anything really striking... And one day we went to Boston. Who is that?